How to Travel When You Are On a Budget

With gas prices averaging around $2.70 a gallon as we near the start of the busy travel season, traveling on a budget may seem impossible. But with a little planning, travel doesn’t have to be canceled from this year’s plans.

Growing up in a family of five in the 1990s, where one parent worked full-time, the other part-time, I never knew how tight money actually was until I grew up. But every summer or two, we were taking a family trip in our station wagon or our Ford Aurostar van. In hindsight, I’m always amazed we were able to do these trips.

As a young boy, I got to see my Colorado Rockies play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. I got to see Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We even got to travel to New York City for one afternoon!

So, with gas prices as high as they are, how do young families afford to travel to provide their kids with incredible experiences and memories to last a lifetime? With a little planning and strategy, traveling does not need to break the bank or be incredibly difficult.

Pack Your Lunch

If you are not flying somewhere, but rather driving, nothing will eat a budget faster than dining out for every single meal. I know this was one tactic my parents used in our family travels. For anything over a few hours, we packed bread, lunch meat, the trimmings, waters, sodas, and snacks. Why spend $7+ for each person when you could spend $10 total for a packed lunch? Sure, it’s not glamorous but meals don’t need to be.

Think about it: How many meals in your life, especially as a kid, do you remember? Probably not many. The only real meal I remember with any level of detail was at home when my dad got mad at us kids and made us eat our dinner in separate rooms because we couldn’t stop laughing. A $45 dinner while on the road has never even registered.

Use the Hotel Refrigerator

When you do arrive at your destination, be sure to take all the food from the cooler and put it into the hotel’s refrigerator in your room. One of the benefits of having a refrigerator in your room is that you can run to the grocery store and pick up a few small items: yogurt, a half-gallon of milk, and orange juice. This works especially well if you’re going to be staying in the same place for a few days,

In fact, one of the things my husband and I loved the most about our drive through Europe back in 2015, was our stops at local grocery stores. We loved walking up and down the aisles to pick up donuts, water, and local treats.

Where to Sleep

Hotel chains are great if you’re able to compile points and then use them. If not, stay in the most convenient, safe, and cheapest place you can find. Sure, you want nice accommodations, but bring your pillow from home, get comfy, and rest. If you have little kids who want a pool, that is pretty easy to find while on the road.

Hostels

If you are open to it and traveling light, perhaps a hostel is the perfect option. These places are very affordable and offer visitors great socialization opportunities with travelers from all backgrounds. Most hostels allow you to rent a bunk bed in a dormitory setting with a shared bathroom. Sometimes these locations have a shared kitchen, too. With a hostel, you’re not going to get amenities, you’re getting a safe place to put your head at night and a great place to meet other travelers.

AirBNB

There are so many people who have now taken advantage of AirBNB and I know the next time I travel to New York City, my husband and I will use AirBNB to book our stay. This “hotel” system is a great way to save a bit of money, stay in a local neighborhood, and still feel like you’re at home. With AirBNB, all you do is rent a room and come and go as you please. Sometimes the homeowners are still there, other times they are on the road and you have free reign. In any event, the owners typically say they are open to showing you around or just staying out of your way.

Couchsurfing

The concept of Couchsurfing has been around for a long time, but the Couchsurfing group was formally created about 20 years ago to serve as an organizing entity for all things Couchsurfing. What is it? It’s a social network for its members to arrange homestays and other hospitality offerings. Years ago, the city of St. Louis had a thriving Couchsurfing community where they would all get together every month for potluck meals! As a traveler, you can stay with other Couchsurfers in their home for “free” as hosts are not allowed to charge. They operate as a “gift” economy. If you want to travel this way, it takes more time and effort because you need to become a member of the community, but it is also a great way to meet new people while you travel.

Hotels.com

I personally swear by Hotels.com. We don’t travel a ton, but their site is easy to use, the pricing is good, and I know how to use their customer support. Not only that, their rewards program is ridiculously simple: ten nights and you get one free. We used Hotels.com to book nearly all of our honeymoon travel and easily earned a free night for something back home. Sure, Hotels.com doesn’t have Platinum upgrades, but this program is great if you are an infrequent traveler.

Stay With Friends

If you happen to be traveling to a city where you have friends, it is pretty customary for Millennials to stay with each other, rather than rent a hotel room for a night or two. One way to ease the burden is to stick to yourselves and let your friends live their normal lives. And an easy way to pay back your friends for their hospitality is to take them to their favorite restaurant, make them dinner at home, or just a gift card or two to their favorite places in town.

Find Free Things To Do

You will always spend money when you travel (especially in major cities), but even in major cities, there is plenty of free things to do. If you’re into outdoor adventure, visit nps.gov before you travel to find national parks; which are scattered throughout the United States. You can also visit discoveramerica.com, the main website of the U.S. travel and tourism industry to find other things to do. And of course, Google any city you’re traveling through or staying in to see what else is around, and free. You will be surprised how much you can do without spending a dime.

Traveling is a way to see and experience the world; and whether you’re single, dating, or traveling with a young family, these concepts still ring true. Happy travels!

A two-time political candidate and author, Richard is passionate about financial planning, business, technology, and really good whiskey. Oh, and good German beer, too.

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2 Comments

  • Thank you much for sharing your experience and tips. I always rely on Airbnb and hostels for my travel – the perfect way to get to know the local and stay on a budget.

    • Of course Abby! The key on my travels has been talking with the locals. When we went to Switzerland and stayed at a hotel which was basically a house with a lot of rooms, we asked the daughter the best off-the-beaten-path place for dinner. She did not let us down. It was a super local place which has been around for over 100 years!

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